Astounding Facts About Pompeii: The City Buried Beneath Ash

Located at the base of the volcano Mount Vesuvius, near what is now modern-day Naples, Pompeii was a thriving ancient Roman city. Under the Romans, it underwent serious urban redevelopment which included an amphitheater, swimming pool, aqueducts, public baths, and countless private establishments. With fertile agriculture in the area, Pompeii was also home to a relatively large population. However, in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii under up to 20 feet of volcanic ash, preserving much of the city and its deceased citizens. The city was eventually rediscovered and is now considered a UNESCO Heritage Site. Let’s explore are some fascinating facts about Pompeii both before and after the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Wind Was A Misfortune

people running from Pompeii eruption
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Unfortunately, had the eruption taken place on a different day, there’s a greater chance that most of the city’s citizens would have been able to get out alive before its doom. This is due to the direction of the wind.

Usually, the wind in Pompeii blows in a southwesterly direction. If that had been the case, it would have blown the ash column out over the Bay of Naples. Yet, on that day, the wind was blowing unusually in a northeasterly direction, sending volcanic ash directly over Pompeii.

The City Was Looted

People cleaning out Pompeii
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

After the eruption, the destruction done to Pompeii and the surrounding area made it completely uninhabitable. While it could have been redeveloped if the Romans really wanted to take the time, they left the area as it was to save themselves the hassle. However, people came to see what had happened, especially looters.

Even though the city was buried under tens of feet of ash, people took advantage and grabbed whatever they could get their hands on. Many actually dug tunnels through the ash in order to get to some of the most expensive valuables left behind.

Past Eruptions Made The Soil Rich

Boy with food
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

It is assumed that Pompeii was originally settled around the 7th century BC by the Oscans, a people from central Italy who founded five different villages in the surrounding area. During the 6th century, it began to flourish as a major port city, making it a prime area for both trade and farming.

However, the port wasn’t the only thing that made the area perfect from farming. The volcanic soil from past eruptions made the soil incredibly rich, perfect for grapes and olive trees. Little did they know what made the area so prosperous would be its downfall.

The iconic Plaster Bodies Are Full of Bones

Plaster casts of Pompeii victims
Ciro De Luca/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ciro De Luca/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In an attempt to preserve the bodies found at Pompeii, a team poured plaster into the soft cavities of the ash around 30 feet from the surface. The cavities were the outlines of bodies from the exact spot where people had died, despite that the bodies had decomposed.

While many people believe that the plastic casts are empty and just outline the dead body, they in fact hold the deceased’s bones.

The Discovery Of Syphilis On The Bodies Changed History

Testing on Pompeii body
Ciro De Luca/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ciro De Luca/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the ancient world, surviving childhood wasn’t always a guarantee. Children could easily catch a disease and without the ability for proper treatment; they would often die. This was no different in Pompeii, and it was found that many of the children were inflicted with Siphilis.

However, the discovery of Siphilis in the bones of children not only showed it was a significant child-killer in the city but changed how we view the history of the disease. While many people believe that the Spanish brought syphilis from the Americas in the 1400s, the remains of the children in Pompeii prove it existed in Europe more than 1,000 years earlier than initially thought.

There’s A Wide Variety Of Frescos Still Preserved

Deteriorating frescos
CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images
CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Walking through the streets of Pompeii, one can still see frescos, drawings, engravings, and graffiti covering the city. Interestingly enough, they aren’t much different than what you might find in a modern city today.

There are messages regarding who to vote for, advertisements, rumors, and even insults. However, there is also a fair amount of erotic art, mostly advertising brothels, or adorning the walls of private homes. These erotic frescos literally painted a picture of what someone was to expect in an establishment and acted as signs to lead the way.

It Was A Premier Resort For Rome’s Elite

Villa courtyard
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Located near the beautiful Bay of Naples, Pompeii was a popular attraction for affluent and powerful Romans who established private villas and houses all over the city. Here, people would take vacations and enjoy the pleasant weather, views, and the quaintness of the city.

Many of the villas and houses were covered in fine mosaics and sculptures, many of which are still preserved. In these wealthy villas, other artwork from around the world has been discovered from places such as India.

The Original Date Of The Eruption Might Be Wrong

Market in Pompeii
Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Initially, researches assumed that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place around 1 PM on August 24, 79 AD. However, recent discoveries have shown that the date might be wrong. A charcoal inscription found in 2018 has led some to believe that the catastrophe actually occurred around October or November.

One piece of evidence is that the people buried under the ashes are wearing heavier clothes rather than the lighter clothing worn during the summer months. Furthermore, the fresh fruit and vegetables found are typical for the month of October. On top of that, the wine fermenting jars had been sealed, something else that would have occurred during that time of the year.

There is An Eyewitness Account Of The Eruption

Pliny watching the eruption
Angelica Kauffman/Getty Images
Angelica Kauffman/Getty Images

Pliny the Younger, nephew of Pliny the Elder, a philosopher, author, and naval commander, provides a first-hand account of the eruption. Although written 25 years after the event, he describes the eruption from his location across the Bay of Naples at Misenum.

He recounts that twelve hours after the initial eruption, he saw an avalanche of hot gas, ash, and rock, avalanche down the side of the volcano towards Pompeii. Unfortunately, an admiral of the fleet, his uncle died attempting to cross the bay in order to assist in evacuating the people of Pompeii.

The First Recorded Discovery

Domenico Fontana
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images

Although the city was looted not long after it was buried, it was left alone for the most part. However, it was rediscovered in 1592, when there was an attempt to dig an underground tunnel to divert the river Sarno. During the process, the diggers ended up running into ancient walls covered in paintings and mosaics.

Architect Domenico Fontana was called to the scene where he unearthed more frescos, only to cover them back up again. It is assumed that Fontana reburied what he had found to leave for further discovery or to hide the sexual images found on the walls which would have gone against counter-reformation Italy.

The Citizens Of Pompeii Didn’t Fear The Volcano

People looking at Mount Vesuvius
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

While it might be understandable that the people of Pompeii would fear the sleeping giant that they resided under, that wasn’t the case. In fact, it was seen as any regular mountain that was full of wood and had fertile soil.

A common belief was that Vesuvius even had divine origins, possibly devoted to Hercules and that its name derives from the Greek version of “the son of the man who makes it rain,” a reference to Zeus. However, they never imagined that their divine mountain would lead to their destruction.

Women Were Held in High Regard In Pompeii

Women behind a pillar
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

It’s no secret that during the Roman era, a woman’s main purpose was to get married and reproduce. In Pompeii, however, women were treated much differently and were respected citizens. They were allowed to freely socialize, hold leadership positions, and even own their own business.

Many of them devoted their time to studying art and literature, and if their husbands went to fight in a war, they inherited their wealth and property. One woman, Giulia Felice, became one of the most powerful women in the city after she bought a series of properties and turned them into ancient versions of a hotel.

Artifacts Were Preserved For Thousands Of Years

Researchers excavating
Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images
Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

After Pompeii had been buried beneath a dense layer of ash, it remained untouched for almost 2,000 years. The reason the city was so well-preserved was the lack of air and oxygen, which allowed the object to remain underground with little to no deterioration.

Although the discovery has provided us with insight into how the people of Pompeii lived, it has also created some problems. Since it has been excavated, many of the artifacts have become at risk due to light exposure, water damage, tourism, vandalism, and poor excavation techniques.

There Are Major Conservation Efforts

Man standing at podium
Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images
Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

Because the city and its artifacts are slowly and surely decaying since being unearthed, researches and archaeologists have made strides to protect as much of it as they can. In 1996, the site was included in the Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund and once again in 1998 and 2000. Currently, most of the funding going into the site goes towards conservation more than anything else.

At the moment it’s a top priority rather than continuing to excavate the area. In 2013, UNESCO declared that if restoration and preservation efforts “fail to deliver substantial progress in the next two years, Pompeii could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”

The Way The Bodies Are Positioned Can Give Clues As To How They Died

Bodies on the ground
CARLO HERMANN,CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images
CARLO HERMANN,CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pompeii was the discovery of all the bodies, lying in the exact positions that they died in. However, what was particularly interesting is how many of them died in a fetal position. It is assumed that this is because many of them suffocated when the hot gasses blasted through the city.

From other people’s positions, researches concluded that they were killed by a collapsing roof due to the excess amount of pumice that had piled up. Another positioned they noticed was much more casual which possibly means they died extremely quickly from the immense heat.

CT Scans Have Altered Some Legends

Couple embracing
MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images
MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images

Back when Pompeii was first being seriously excavated during the Victorian era, people began to come up with stories about the positioning of the bodies to add some drama to the situation. However, these stories are misleading. One of these tales involves what appears to be a pregnant woman who is embracing her lover as they were both buried and suffocated by ash.

The supposed couple became known as the “Two Maidens.” However, modern Ct scans have revealed that the story couldn’t be further from the truth. Neither of the individuals was pregnant and they were both most likely men.

The Cult Of Isis Was Popular In Pompeii

Cult of Isis Temple
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Aside from the temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Isis in Pompeii, depictions, and statues of Isis have been found in more than 20 houses, alongside more common Roman gods. At the time, the Cult of Isis was considered to be a threat to traditional Roman beliefs, so it wasn’t necessarily the most popular of religions.

However, it appears that in Pompeii, it wasn’t all that taboo. Yet, one explanation as to why the cult of Isis was popular in Pompeii is that Isis is the patron goddess of the sea, and Pompeii was located by the sea.

Mount Vesuvius’ Eruption Wasn’t A Total Surprise

Eruption and boats
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Even though eyewitness Pliny the Younger claims that the eruption came out of nowhere, it’s a myth that it was completely unexpected. Apparently, there was a fair amount of seismic activity leading up to 79 AD. In 62 AD, there had been an extremely powerful earthquake that destroyed numerous parts of the city, even causing some people to leave from the area for good.

Then, in the days leading up to the eruption, there were numerous other quakes. Although most people might assume that a series of earthquakes might be because of the volcano they were next to, the people living in the area had become used to them.

The Eruption Of Mount Vesuvius Was Not Closest To The Deadliest in History

Eruption of a volcano
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although the eruption of Mount Vesuvius may be one of the more well-known eruptions in history, it’s far from the deadliest. While some believe only a few thousand died, others claim that the numbers reach to around ten thousand. Even if that was the case, the eruption would still barely make into the top 5 deadliest volcano eruptions in history.

In the 1972 eruption of Mount Uzen in Japan, the explosion on top of a landslide and tsunami took the lives of over 15,000 people. The eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 killed more than 36,000. What makes Pompeii so enticing is the previously undiscovered city.

Vesuvius Is Mainland Europe’s Only Active Volcano

Modern day Vesuvius
DEA / PUBBLI AER FOTO/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / PUBBLI AER FOTO/De Agostini via Getty Images

Currently, Mount Vesuvius is mainland Europe’s only active volcano. it has consistently been erupting over the years with its last eruption taking place on March 1944. With Vesuvius only being 5 miles away from Naples, it puts 3 million people at risk, although modern technology will help predict when it will erupt once again.

Its first eruption is believed to have occurred 20,000 years ago, known as the Avellino eruption, which engulfed Bronze Age settlements. Of the many times after that, Vesuvius has erupted at least 36 times since the decimation of Pompeii and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.